WOW! I knew I was dragging a bit on getting around to this vertebral orientation problem, but I didn’t realize a whole month had passed. Yikes. Thanks to everyone who has commented so far, and thanks to Mike for getting the ball rolling on this. Previous posts in this series are here and here.

First up, this may seem like a pointlessly picky thing to even worry about. Can’t we just orient the vertebrae in whichever way feels the most natural, or is easiest? Do we have to think about this?

The alarmingly 3D pelvis of the mounted brontosaur at the AMNH. Note that sauropod pubes are usually illustrated lying flat, so what usually passes for ‘lateral’ view would be roughly from the point of view of the animal’s knee.

I think we do. For sauropods, vertebrae are usually oriented for illustration purposes in one of two ways. The first is however they sit most easily on their pallets. This is similar to the problem Mike and I found for ‘lateral’ views of sauropod pelvic elements when were on our AMNH/Yale trip in 2012. In an articulated skeleton, the pubes and ischia usually lean inward by 30-45 degrees from their articulations with the ilia, so they can meet on the midline, but when people illustrate the “lateral view” of a sauropod pubis or ischium, it’s often the ventro-lateral aspect that is face-up when the element is lying on a shelf or a pallet. Photographic lateral does not equal biological lateral for those elements. Similarly, if I’m trying to answer biological questions about vertebrae (see below), I need to know something about their orientation in the body, not just how they sit comfortably on a pallet.

The other way that vertebrae are commonly oriented is according to what we might call the “visual long axis” of the centrum—so for example, dorsoventrally tall but craniocaudally short proximal caudals get oriented with the centrum ‘upright’, whereas dorsoventrally short but craniocaudally long distal caudals get oriented with the centrum ‘horizontal’, even if they’re in the same tail and doing so makes the neural canals or articular faces be oriented inconsistently down the column. (I’m not going to name names, because it seems mean to pick on people for something I just started thinking about myself, but if you go plow through a bunch of sauropod descriptions, you’ll see what I’m talking about.)

Are there biological questions where this matters? You bet! There are some questions that we can’t answer unless we have the vertebrae correctly oriented first. One that comes to mind is measuring the cross-sectional area of the neural canal, which Emily Giffin did a lot of back in the 90s. Especially for the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus, what counts as the cross-sectional area of the neural canal depends on whether we are looking at the verts orthogonal to their articular faces, or in alignment with the course of the canal. I think the latter is pretty obviously the way to go if we are measuring the cross-sectional area of the canal to try and infer the diameter of the spinal cord—we’d want to see the canal the same way the cord ‘sees’ it as it passes through—but it’s less obvious if we’re measuring, say, the surface area of the articular face of the vertebra to figure out, say, cartilage stress. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to me that we might want to define a ‘neural axis’ for dealing with spinal-cord-related questions, and a ‘biomechanical axis’ for dealing with articulation-related questions.

Caudal 3 of the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus, hemisected 3D model.

With all that in mind, here are some points.

To me, asking “how do we know if a vertebra is horizontal” is an odd phrasing of the problem, because “horizontal” doesn’t have any biological meaning. I think it makes more sense to couch the question as, “how do we define cranial and caudal for a vertebra?” Normally both the articular surfaces and the neural canal are “aimed” head- and tail-wards, so the question doesn’t come up. Our question is, how do we deal with vertebrae for which the articular surfaces and neural canal give different answers?

For example. Varanus komodoensis caudal.

(And by the way, I’m totally fine using “anterior” and “posterior” for quadrupedal animals like sauropods. I don’t think it causes any confusion, any more than people are confused by “superior” and “inferior” for human vertebrae. But precisely because we’re angling for a universal solution here, I think using “cranial” and “caudal” makes the most sense, just this once. That said, when I made the image above, I used anterior and posterior, and I’m too lazy now to change it.)

I think if we couch the question as “how do we define cranial and caudal”, it sets up a different set of possible answers than Mike proposed in the first post in this series: (1) define cranial and caudal according to the neural canal, and then describe the articular surfaces as inclined or tilted relative to that axis; (2) vice versa—realizing that using the articular surfaces to define the anatomical directions may admit a range of possible solutions, which might resurrect some of the array of possible methods from our first-draft abstract; (3) define cranial and caudal along the long axis of the centrum, which is potentially different from either of the above; (4) we can imagine a range of other possibilities, like “use the zygs” or “make the transverse processes horizontal” (both of which are subsets of Mike’s method C) but I don’t think most of those other possibilities are sufficiently compelling to be worthy of lengthy discussion.

IF we accept “neural canal”, “articular surfaces”, and “centrum long axis” as our strongest contenders, I think it makes most sense to go with the neural canal, for several reasons:

  • In a causative sense, the neural tube/spinal cord does define the cranial/caudal axis for the developing skeleton. EDIT: Actually, that’s a bit backwards. It’s the notochord, which is later replaced by the vertebral column, that induces the formation of the brain and spinal cord from the neural plate. But it’s still true that the vertebrae form around the spinal cord, so it’s not wrong to talk about the spinal cord as a defining bit of soft tissue for the developing vertebrae to accommodate.
  • The neural canal works equally well for isolated vertebrae and for articulated series. Regardless of how the vertebral column is oriented in life, the neural canal is relatively smooth—it may bend, but it doesn’t kink. So if we line up a series of vertebrae so that their neural canals are aligned, we’re probably pretty close to the actual alignment in life, even before we look at the articular surfaces or zygs.
  • The articulated tails of Opisthocoelicaudia and big varanids show that sometimes the articular surfaces simply are tilted to anything that we might reasonably consider to be the cranio-caudal axis or long axis of the vertebra. In those cases, the articular surfaces aren’t orthogonal to horizontal OR to cranio-caudal. So I think articular surfaces are ruled out because they break down in the kinds of edge cases that led us to ask the question in the first places.

Opistocoelicaudia caudals 6-8, stereopair, Borsuk-Bialynicka (1977:plate 5).

“Orient vertebrae, isolated or in series, so that their neural canals define the cranio-caudal axis” may seem like kind of a ‘duh’ conclusion (if you accept that it’s correct; you may not!), but as discussed up top, often vertebrae from a single individual are oriented inconsistently in descriptive works, and orientation does actually matter for answering some kinds of questions. So regardless of which conclusion we settle on, there is a need to sort out this problem.

That’s where I’m at with my thinking. A lot of this has been percolating in my hindbrain over the last few weeks—I figured out most of this while I was writing this very post. Is it compelling? Am I talking nonsense? Let me know in the comments.

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Left lateral view

Have we ever posted decent photos of the Brachiosaurus altithorax caudals? Has anyone? I can’t remember either thing ever happening. When I need images of brachiosaur bits, including caudals, I usually go to Taylor (2009).

Taylor (2009: fig. 3)

Which is silly, not because Mike’s diagrams compiling old illustrations aren’t good – they definitely are – but because I’m sitting on a war chest of decent photos of the actual material. I am home sick with a sore throat today, and I can’t be arsed to (1) follow up on the “Down in Flames” post, (2) add anything thoughtful to the vertebral orientation discussion, or (3) crop or color-adjust these photos. You’re getting them just as they came out of my camera, from my trip to the Field Museum in 2012.

Here are the rest of the orthogonal views:

Right lateral view

 

Anterior view

 

Posterior view

 

Dorsal view of caudal 1

 

Dorsal view of caudal 2

And here’s a virtual walkaround using a series of oblique shots. Making a set like this is part of my standard practice now for important specimens during museum visits.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now, I said up top that I wasn’t going to add anything thoughtful to the vertebral orientation discussion. I have thoughts on that, but I’m tired and hopped up on cold medicine and now ain’t the time. In lieu of blather, here are a couple of relevant photos.

 

I wanted to capture for my future self the pronounced non-orthogonality of the neural canal and centrum, so I rolled up a piece of paper and stuck it through the neural canal. I haven’t run the numbers, but in terms of “angle of the articular faces away from the neural canal”, these verts look like they’re right up there with my beloved Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus.

More on that next time, I reckon. In the meantime, all these photos are yours now (CC-BY, like everything on this site [that someone else hasn’t asserted copyright over]). Go have fun.

Reference

I was lucky enough to have Phil Mannion as one of the peer-reviewers for my recent paper (Taylor 2018) showing that Xenoposeidon is a rebbachisaurid. During that process, we got into a collegial disagreement about one of the autapomorphies that I proposed in the revised diagnosis: “Neural arch slopes anteriorly 30°–35° relative to the vertical”. (This same character was also in the original Xenoposeidon paper (Taylor and Naish 2007), in the slightly more assertive form “neural arch slopes anteriorly 35 degrees relative to the vertical”: the softening to “30°–35°” in the newer paper was one of the outcomes of the peer-review.)

The reason this is interesting is because the slope of the neural arch is measured relative to the vertical, which of course is 90˚ from the horizontal — but Phil’s comments (Mannion 2018) pushed me to ask myself for the first time: what actually is “horizontal”? We all assume we know horizontality when we see it, but what precisely do we mean by it?

Three notions of “horizontal”

The idiosyncratic best-preserved caudal vertebra of the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus MWC 8028, illustrating three different versions of “horizontal”. A. horizontality defined by vertical orientation of the posterior articular surface. B. horizontality defined by horizontal orientation of the roof of the neural canal (in this case, rotated 24˚ clockwise relative to A). C. horizontality defined by optimal articulation of two instances of the vertebra, oriented such the a line joining the same point of both instances is horizontal (in this case, rotated 17˚ clockwise relative to A). Red lines indicate exact orthogonality according to the specified criteria. Green line indicate similar but diverging orientations: that of the not-quite-vertical anterior articular surface (A) and of the not-quite-horizontal base of the neural canal (B).

There are at least three candidate definitions, which we can see yield noticeably different orientations in the case of the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus vertebra that Matt’s been playing with so much recently.

Definition A: articular surfaces vertical

In part A, I show maybe the simplest — or, at least, the one that is easiest to establish for most vertebrae. So long as you have a reasonably intact articular surface, just rotate the vertebra until that surface is vertical. If, as is often the case, the surface is not flat but concave or convex, then ensure the top and bottom of the surface are vertically aligned. This has the advantage of being easy to do — it’s what I did with Xenoposeidon — but it conceals complexities. Most obviously, what to do when the anterior and posterior articular surfaces are not parallel, in the 7th cervical vertebra of a giraffe?

Cervical vertebra 7 of Giraffa camelopardalis FMNH 34426, in left lateral view. Note that the centrum is heavily “keystoned” so that the anterior and posterior articular surfaces are 15-20˚ away from being parallel.

Another difficulty with this interpretation of horizontality is that it can make the neural canal jagged. Consider a sequence of vertebrae oriented as in part A, all at the same height: the neural canal would rise upwards along the length of each vertebra, before plunging down again on transitioning from the front of one to the back of the next. This is not something we would expect to see in a living animal: see for example the straight line of the neural canal in our hemisected horse head(*).

Definition B: neural canal horizontal

Which leads us to the second part of the illustration above. This time, the vertebra is oriented so that the roof of the neural canal is horizontal, which gives us a straight neural canal. Nice and simple, except …

Well, how do we define what’s horizontal for the neural canal? As the Haplocanthosaurus vertebra shows nicely, the canal is not always a nice, neat tube. In this vertebra, the floor is nowhere near straight, but dishes down deeply — which is why I used to the roof, rather than the floor of the canal. Rather arbitrary, I admit — especially as it’s often easier to locate the floor of the canal, as the dorsal margin is often confluent with fossae anteriorly, posteriorly or both.

And as we can see, it makes a difference which we choose. The green line in Part B of the illustration above shows the closest thing to “horizontal” as it would be defined by the ventral margin of the neural canal — a straight line ignoring the depression and joining the anteriormost and posteriormost parts of the base of the canal. As you can see, it’s at a significantly different angle from the red line — about 6.5˚ out.

And then you have human vertebrae, where the dorsal margin of the neural canal is so convex in lateral view that you really can’t say where the anteriormost or posteriormost point is.

Left sides of hemisected human thoracic vertebrae, medial view. Note how ill-defined the dorsal margin of the neural canal is.

So can we do better? Can we find a definition of “horizontal” that’s not dependent of over-interpreting a single part of the vertebra?

Definition C: same points at same height in consecutive vertebrae

I’ve come to prefer a definition of horizontal that uses the whole vertebra — partly in the hope that it’s less vulnerable to yielding a distorted result when the vertebra is damaged. With this approach, shown in part C of the illustration above, we use two identical instances of the vertebrae, articulate them together as well as we can, then so orient them that the two vertebrae are level — that a line drawn between any point on one vertebra and its corresponding point on the other is horizontal. We can define that attitude of the vertebra as being horizontal.

Note that, while we use two “copies” of the vertebra in this method, we are nevertheless determining the horizontality of a single vertebra in isolation: we don’t need a sequence of consecutive vertebrae to have been preserved, in fact it doesn’t help if we do have them.

One practical advantage of this definition is that its unambiguous as regards what part of the vertebra is used: all of it; or any point on it, at the measurement stage. By contrast, method A requires us to choose whether to use the anterior or posterior articular surface, and method B requires a choice of the roof or floor of the neural canal.

Discussion

I have three questions, and would welcome any thoughts:

  1. Which of these definitions do you prefer, and why?
  2. Can you think of any other definitions that I missed?
  3. Does anyone know of any previous attempts to formalise this? Is it a solved problem, and Matt and I somehow missed it?

Answers in the comments, please!

References

(*) Yes, of course we have a hemisected horse head. What do you think we are, savages?

Remember this broken Giraffatitan dorsal vertebra, which Janensch figured in 1950?

It is not only cracked in half, anteroposteriorly, it’s also unfused.

Here’s a better view of the broken face, more clearly showing that the neural canal is (a) much taller than wide – unlike all vertebrate spinal cords – and (b) almost entirely situated ventral to the neurocentral joint, getting close to the condition in the perverted Camarasaurus figured by Marsh.

Here’s a dorsal view, anterior to the top, with Mike’s distal forelimbs for scale.

Left lateral view.

Right lateral view – note the subtle asymmetries in the pneumatic foramen/camera. A little of that might be taphonomic distortion but I think much of it is real (and expected, most pneumatic systems produce asymmetries).

And postero-dorsal view, really showing the weird neural canal to good advantage. In this photo and in the pure dorsal view, you can see that the two platforms for the “neural arch” – which, as in the aforementioned Camarasaurus, is neither neural nor an arch – converge so closely as to leave only a paper-thin gap.

A few points arise. As explained in this post, it makes more sense to talk about the neurocentral joint migrating up or down relative to the neural canal, which is right where it always is, just dorsal to the articular faces of the centrum.

So far, in verts I’ve seen with “offset” neurocentral joints, the joint tends to migrate dorsally in dorsal vertebrae, putting the canal inside the developmental domain of the centrum (which now includes a partial or total arch in an architectural sense, even though the chunk of bone we normally call the neural arch develops as a separate bit) – as shown in the first post in this series. In sacral and caudal vertebrae, the situation is usually reversed, with the joint shifted down into what would normally be the centrum, and the canal then mostly or completely surrounded by the arch – as shown in the second post in the series. This post then doesn’t really add any new concepts, just a new example.

Crucially, we can only study this in the vertebrae of juveniles and subadults, because once the neurocentral joints are fused and remodeled, we usually can’t tell where the old joint surface was. So it’s like cervicodorsal and caudal dorsal pneumatic hiatuses, in that the feature of interest only exists for part of the ontogeny of the animal, and our sample size is therefore inherently limited. Not necessarily limited by material – most museums I’ve visited have a fair amount of juvenile and subadult material in the collections – but limited in published visibility, in that for many sauropods only the largest and most complete specimens have been monographically described.

So once again, the answer is simply to visit collections, look at lots of fossils, and stay alert for weird stuff – happily, a route that is open to everyone with a legitimate research interest.

Reference

  • Janensch, W. 1950. Die Wirbelsaule von Brachiosaurus brancai. Palaeontographica (Suppl. 7) 3:27-93.

This is the second post in the “bird neural canals are weird” series (intro post here), and it covers the first of five expansions of the spinal cord or meninges in the lumbosacral regions of birds.

The lumbosacral expansion of the spinal cord is not unique to birds and doesn’t require any special explanation. As noted in the slide, all limbed tetrapods and some fishes with sensitive fins have adjacent segments of the spinal cord correspondingly expanded. These expansions house the extra afferent neurons needed to collect sensory inputs from the limbs, the extra efferent neurons needed to provide motor control to the limbs, and the extra interneurons needed for sensory and motor integration (including reflex arcs) – ‘extra’ here meaning ‘more than are required for non-limb neck, trunk, and tail segments’.

Humans have these, too, in our lower cervical vertebrae to run our forelimbs, and in our lower thoracic vertebrae to run our hindlimbs. Recall that the segmental anatomy of the adult human spinal cord corresponds increasingly poorly to the vertebrae the farther we are from the head because of our child-sized spinal cords (see this post for more).

So if the lumbosacral expansion is present in all tetrapods with hindlimbs, why bring it up? My goal is to develop a set of criteria to distinguish the various spinal and meningeal specializations in birds, in part because it’s an interesting challenge in its own right, and in part because doing so may help illuminate some unusual features in sauropods and other non-avian dinosaurs. If we want to be able to detect whether, say, a glycogen body is present, we need to know how to tell the impression left by a glycogen body from the more generalized lumbosacral expansion present in all limbed tetrapods. The key characteristics of the lumbosacral expansion are that the cord (and hence the canal) expands and contracts gradually, over many segments, and that the expansion is in all directions, radially, and not biased dorsoventrally or mediolaterally.

Numbering reflects spinal nerve count – 8 cervical, 12 thoracic, 5 lumbar, and 5 sacral spinal spinal nerves. Cervical expansion for the forelimbs is roughly C5-T1, and lumbosacral expansion for hindlimbs is L2-S3. Gray (1918 image 665).

The one way in which the lumbosacral expansion of birds is weird, at least compared to mammals, is that the magnitude of the change is so great in hindlimb-dominant flightless birds like the ostrich. Here’s a graph from Gray’s Anatomy showing the cross-sectional area of the human spinal cord in square mm, with the head on the left. Note that the swellings for the limbs bump up the cross-sectional area by a quarter to a third, relative to adjacent non-limb areas.

Streeter (1904: fig. 4)

Here’s the same diagram for an ostrich, again in square mm, again with the head to the left. The lines here are a little different – the “substantia grisea” is the gray matter (mostly neuron cell bodies), and the white matter (axons, mostly myelinated) is divided into the large ventrolateral funiculi (descending motor, ascending pain, temperature, and unconscious proprioception) and the much smaller dorsal funiculi (ascending touch and conscious proprioception). Here the lumbosacral expansion maxes out at more than double the cross-sectional area of the cord in the inter-limb torso segments – and this is just the white and gray matter, and does not include the glycogen body (which is proportionally small in the ostrich, as we’ll see in a future post).

Note that the ostrich does have a much smaller expansion of the spinal cord associated with the forelimbs, but one glance at the graph will tell you that the hindlimbs are a lot more important. This too has implications for fossils. Because the cross-sectional area of the neural canal tends to track the cross-sectional area of the spinal cord (despite the cord not filling the canal), it is possible to make inferences about limb use in fossil taxa based on the relative cross-sectional area of the neural canal along the vertebral column. Emily Giffin published several papers about this in the 1990s (e.g., Giffin 1990, 1995), all of which are worth reading.

Next in this series: the glycogen body.

References

Dorsal vertebra of a rhea from the LACM ornithology collection. Note the pneumatic foramina in the lateral wall of the neural canal.

If you’ve been here for very long you know I have a bit of a neural canal fixation. Some of this is related to pneumaticity, some of it is related to my interest in the nervous systems of animals, and some of it is pure curiosity about an anatomical region that seems to receive very little attention in proportion to its weirdness – especially in birds.

Human thoracic vertebrae in midsagittal section showing vertebral venous plexus. Gray (1918, image 579), available from Bartleby.com.

The neural canals of mammals are pretty boring. The canal is occupied by the spinal cord and its supporting layers of meninges, and the rest of the volume is padded out by adipose tissue and blood vessels, notably an extra-dural venous plexus. Aaand that’s about it, as far as I know. (If there are weird things inside mammalian neural canals that I’ve missed, please let me know in the comments – I’m a collector.)

But not so in birds, which have a whole festival of weird stuff going on inside their neural canals. Let’s start with pneumaticity, just to get it out of the way. Many birds have supramedullary diverticula inside their neural canals, and these can leave osteological traces, such as pneumatic foramina, in the walls of the neural canal. That’s cool but it’s a pretty well-known system – see Muller (1908) on the pigeon, Cover (1953) on the turkey, and these previous posts – and I want to get on to other, even stranger things.

The lumbosacral spinal cord of a 3-week-old chick in dorsal view. The big egg-shaped mass in the middle is the glycogen body. Watterson (1949: plate 1).

The spinal cords of birds have several gross morphological specializations not seen in mammals, as do their meninges, and most of these apomorphic structures can also leave diagnostic traces on the inner walls of the neural canal. In fact, birds have so many weird things going on with their spinal cords – at least five different things in the lumbosacral region alone – that I spent a week back in January just sorting them out. To crystalize that body of knowledge while I had it all loaded in RAM, I made a little slideshow for myself, and I’ll use screenshots of those slides to illustrate the morphologies I want to discuss. We’ll cover the vanilla stuff in the next post, and the really weird stuff in subsequent posts.

Stay tuned!

References

In the first installment in this series (link), we looked at a couple of weird sauropod vertebrae with neurocentral joints that were situated either entirely dorsal or ventral to the neural canals. This post has more examples of what I am calling “offset” neurocentral synchondroses.

I decided it made more sense to refer to the synchondrosis as being offset, instead of referring to the neural canal as offset. Because the neural canal in all of these vertebrae is right where it pretty much always is, just dorsal to the articular surfaces of the centrum. In an adult, fused vertebra, there’d be no sign that anything unusual had ever happened. So I think it makes more sense to talk about the neurocentral joint having migrated dorsally or ventrally relative to the canal, rather than vice versa. If you know differently, or if these weirdos have been addressed before elsewhere and I’ve just missed it, please let me know in the comments!

Here’s a plate from Marsh (1896) showing caudal vertebrae of Camarasaurus (“Morosaurus” in O.C. Marsh parlance), which echo the Alamosaurus caudal from the first post in having the neurocentral joint almost entirely ventral to the neural canal. The neural arch here doesn’t just arch over the canal dorsally, it also cuts under it ventrally, at least in part.

This plate is also nice because it shows the relationships among the arch, centrum, and caudal ribs before they fuse. Here’s the caption, from Marsh (1896):

Here’s the preceding plate, Plate 33, with illustrations of an unfused Camarasaurus sacrum.

And its caption:

This plate not only shows how the sacral ribs fuse to the arch and spine medially, and to each other laterally (forming the sacrocostal yoke), it also shows a last sacral that is very similar to the aforementioned caudals in the position of the neurocentral joint. But interestingly that neurocentral joint offset only seems to be present in the last caudal sacral – the lower figure shows widely-separated neurocentral joint surfaces in the more anterior centra, indicating that the neural arches (not figured in this dorsal view) did not wrap around the neural canal to approach the midline. (I think we’re looking at S2 through S5 here, and missing a dorso-sacral.)

So now I’m freaked out, wondering if this neural arch wrap-around in the caudals is common to most sauropods and I just haven’t looked at enough juvenile caudals to have spotted it before. As always, feel free to ablate my ignorance in the comments, particularly if you know of more published examples. I’m a collector.

The neural canal of that last sacral also has a very interesting cross-sectional shape, like a numeral 8. I have some thoughts on that, but they’ll keep for a future post in this series.